Our origins are of the earth. And so, there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity. — Rachel Carson
Urban streets facilitate efficiency. They are where transportation and commerce intersect, and pedestrians are relegated to the streets’ margins, aka sidewalks. The name itself suggests the kind of marginalization that walking has become in the modern car-based society. As we continue to make it easier for things to go quickly, there is perhaps an increased need for a place where things can just be, and move more slowly, or in other words, a place to park.
Imagine a city growing new public parks as it grows upwards with each new skyscraper. When high-rise developers are offered an opportunity to increase their project size, they can afford to “democratize their development” and set aside space on their lower rooftops for a park. This quid pro quo is codified as a forward-thinking, public-private initiative. Let the mind’s eye visualize these rooftop parks connected by park bridges joining together in an organic and random way that grows as cities do, parcel by parcel. The result would be “Park-Walk”: an interwoven network of public parks connected with bridges and High Line-type walkways. This series of publicly connected greens would enable people to walk dogs, play with children, grow food and participate in outdoor activities.
The contemporary city’s challenge is that when buildings grow taller, sidewalks do not get wider. The existing neighborhood parks can’t grow beyond the set-aside boundaries of the visionary thinking from bygone eras when there was land to be set aside. In the early part of the 19th century, most of the land that eventually became New York’s Central Park was a largely untamed area that included small settlements of unappreciated Irish and African-American communities, as well as undesirable squatters and odious industries, such as animal hide tanning operations. The land was eventually purchased for $5 million in 1857, which in today’s dollars would be just under $139 million. Notwithstanding, the actual real estate value of Central Park’s 778 acres today is a staggering $35 billion! With that in mind, it’s highly unlikely that a city can afford to buy developed land and turn it into parks, despite the well-documented advantages of mental and physical health benefits.
Park-Walk prioritizes human mobility and designates space within the heart of our cities where nature can thrive. Park-Walk supports densification by providing the natural quiet space that inhabitants usually find on the outskirts of cities.
There are precedents for this vision to grow parks on roofs. Raised public spaces and parks can be found in San Francisco’s “Privately Owned Public Open Spaces” or POPOS. This idea grew out of many of the mid-century modern public plazas, such as Lever House and the Seagrams Building, that sprouted on Park Avenue in New York City. On a nice day in almost every city in the world, public plazas are packed with people spilling out of office towers during their lunch break. Any refuge from the noisy pace of the street and sidewalk is usually a welcome repose.
Park-Walk = POPOS + Green Roofs + Sky Bridges
This parks-on-rooftops vision is also more feasible because green roofs have come a long way from the leaky sod roofs of the past. Using proven materials and engineered layers, Germany pioneered green roofs in the 1960s. Today, many municipalities incentivize green roofs because of the environmental benefits in reducing urban heat-island effects. The structural demands for adding vegetation to a roof are, in many cases, easily accommodated. Many flat roofs can and will grow plants unless we intentionally stop them. Bird scat is often filled with seeds, and, with the right combination of windblown silt and nutrients, green roofs will naturally occur. In fact, local plants were already thriving on the abandoned tracks of New York’s High Line, courtesy of Mother Nature, prior to rehabilitation. In his book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman, in 2007, explained how quickly a city would be reclaimed by Mother Nature. Park-Walk hosts a natural process by offering a planned introduction of nature back into the city.
A Walk in the Park-Walk
Park-Walk envisions new parks that grow up onto 5- to 7-story high green roofs and are connected across the city with ramps, park bridges and sidewalk access points. The idea of simultaneously growing parks and buildings grew out of an independent exploration of The Ankeny Blocks — an area that encompasses 11 relatively contiguous parcels of land covering roughly 30 blocks — in the Ankeny district of Portland, Oregon. It presents an unprecedented opportunity to consider many parcels at one time in a well-established, thriving city. Park-Walk would provide the residents of this area with the opportunity to gain a coveted park-side address where everyone would have access to more parkland.
Imagine, walking along a riverside park and having the option to traverse the city, via a series of ramps and terraced gardens, without being on a sidewalk. You are on a “Park-Walk” in a realm for only people and nature. After ascending Park-Walk, the path levels out and a vast network of nature, mushrooming across the city, comes into view. A bridge with vines cascading down to the street below extends toward the next block’s raised public space. Well high above the din, in this raised public park, is a web of rooftop sanctuaries that consist of commons and green community spaces, flowering gardens, playgrounds, all designed to bring people together and back to nature, helping to restore the balance between us and the world we live in. Here exists a network of natural growth, where every bridge expands an oasis of green that’s limited only by our imagination. Open-air space brings light and life where once there were only more empty building rooftops. Park-Walk helps to restore a true sense of community and value, turning unused spaces into productive, healthy and valuable parkland.
The path turns up and away from the river toward a new hotel that has kept half of its roof as an open-air café. Without Park-Walk, this would have been another hotel with another private, underused, green roof. The heightened visibility in having a restaurant adjacent to a park is a boon to its success, in addition to being a nice amenity for the steady stream of Park-Walk visitors. As a rule, people go where people are and, in Portland, residents and tourists would come to enjoy the gourmet local flavors from a spot combining the secluded serenity of a park environment. The ability of guests to venture on to the rooftop terrace and then walk out across the new Naito parkway garden bridge and down to a waterfront park to watch the boats go by would be among the hotel’s distinguishing trademarks.
Past the hotel, at a higher level on a neighboring building, are greenhouses growing fruit, vegetables and herbs that could be sold at a farmers market. Commercial activities would be limited to services typically found in a park. Larger rooftops could house pickleball and tennis courts, public pools and recreation fields that would give young children a safe place to play. There is no reason to compete with the street’s vitality, as Park-Walk’s goal is to provide a respite from the urban streets.
A series of ramps, lifts and steps continue up past vibrant community gardens and open grass areas, leading to a veranda underneath the upper floors of a mixed-use office/residential tower block. Benches invite visitors to stop and enjoy a view between the buildings, as others crossover the street below on the opposite side of the block heading to an even taller building that’s open for three stories so that the Park-Walk can pass through it much in the same way a sidewalk passes along any residential tower on the street level. On Park-Walk, however, it’s above and away from the hustle and bustle of a city street.
The cost benefit of direct park access would be attractive for elder care co-op housing and for parents with young children. The direct access to the park offers lawn space for community yoga classes.
In a sense, we are going backwards to go forwards, reaching toward a sustainable, healthy city. The city of the future.
A Starting Point?
The illustration with this article gives a painterly insight as to what this development could look like were it to be developed with the principles of the Park-Walk.
This introduction of Park-Walk presents a starting point for a series of rich discussions on how we want to grow our cities around the world and to address some of the vexing problems that plague cities. Following are a few of the questions that would need to be addressed:
- While we are offering public parks for everyone, how can we create affordable housing to keep the economic diversity of the neighborhood intact?
- Can Park-Walks offer an alternative for civic gatherings and democratic expressions?
- Will the street lose its vitality if a percentage of pedestrians prefer a Park-Walk to a sidewalk?
- How best to establish public-
- private partnerships to build and maintain Park-Walks?
“Traditionally, America’s cities have grown horizontally, spreading farther and farther into the surrounding countryside. They have thus both despoiled our rural character, while, at the same time, dissipated the density that give cities their special energy,” says Mike Abbate, an NRPA board member and principal of Abbate Designs. “Enlightened cities and states have decided to create limits on the sprawl that can happen by creating urban-growth boundaries. This allows cities to grow up, not out. Cincotta’s visionary thinking (see www.ParkWalkPDX.org) gives us a glimpse into a new future that is both denser and more relaxing, both more vertical and more beautiful, and both more constructed and healthier.
“Where others see merely economic opportunity,” Abbate continues, “in the redevelopment of several blocks of downtown Portland, Oregon, Cincotta sees the chance to create a dynamic, new urbanism that is welcoming to all, beautiful and healthy. As an advocate for public parks and the former director of Portland Parks & Recreation, I applaud his exciting vision: parks, like cities, must evolve as we build better and better urban habitats.”
Joseph Cincotta, AIA, LEED, NCARB, M.Arch., is the Principal Architect for LineSync Architecture.